Arms Control Expert Says Discord in Washington Causes Problems in Resolving Nuclear Dispute With North Korea

December 10, 2003

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that recent developments have eased substantially the crisis with Iran over its secret nuclear program. But he warns that the danger of North Korea producing nuclear weapons “is a very serious situation, and no other country actually comes close” to North Korea as a threat to world peace.

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The veteran arms control specialist says that no one knows if North Korea has produced any nuclear arms or is just bluffing, because U.S. intelligence on that country is “just miniscule.” An additional problem, he says, is a “deep divide” in the Bush administration “between those who want to negotiate with the North Korean regime and those who want to overthrow the regime.”

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Cirincione was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 10, 2003.

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It has been 35 years since the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed. Two of the signatories to that treaty, North Korea and Iran, have been in the news recently because of their nuclear programs. What is the situation now? Should we be worried?

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We should be very worried. Both these countries present major challenges to the United States and the world. If either one goes nuclear, this could be quickly matched by other countries in their regions. Right now, the combination of U.S. pressure and European diplomacy has bought us some time in Iran and may prove to be a path to walk the Iranians back from their nuclear ambitions. The North Korean program is currently the most urgent and requires focused and continuous attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Has the North Korean regime produced nuclear weapons?

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We don’t have any idea if the North Koreans actually have a nuclear weapon. We believe they have enough material for one or two nuclear weapons and may have separated enough plutonium for at least one more. But our intelligence in this area is just miniscule. All our assessments are based on a series of assumptions about what we think the North Koreans might have done.

What do the North Koreans say they’ve done?

They say they have nuclear weapons. They say that they have [recently] separated out plutonium from 8,000 [spent] fuel rods, giving them material for three or four more nuclear weapons. But we don’t know if this is a nuclear bluff, something we have now become familiar with after the experience with Iraq, when many U.S. officials feared Iraq had a nuclear weapons program still going when in fact it apparently did not.

Discuss what is going on now between North Korea and the United States.

First, let me say we have to take the worst case possibility seriously. And that worst case is that if North Korea is allowed to continue its program and all goes well with the program, it could have as many as 100 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. This is a very serious situation, and no other country comes close to North Korea’s potential capabilities. We face two problems with the negotiations [that have taken place between the United States and North Korea, with China acting as middleman]. One is understanding what North Korea’s position is, and the other is understanding what our position is.

The North Koreans seem to actually want to negotiate and may be willing to end their nuclear program if the terms are right. We don’t know that for sure, and the goal of any negotiation should be to test that hypothesis. In other words, to try to make a deal and see if the North Koreans will accept it. The major difficulty we have right now is within the U.S. administration itself, where there is still a deep divide between those who want to negotiate with the North Korean regime and those who want to overthrow the regime.

I thought the United States had prepared a position for the next round of negotiations.

We’ve agreed on essentially two things. One is that we have to have six-party talks, involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. This is an agreement on the process, not the goal of negotiations. And we’ve agreed on a tentative outline of an offer. But that in itself appears to represent a compromise between the contending factions in the administration.

Last summer the North Koreans made clear their position in a transcript of their version of the first round of talks in Beijing. It included demands for the United States to make a non-aggression pledge and all kinds of economic assistance. Is it the economic assistance that’s causing the problem for the administration?

No, it’s the sequencing. There are two issues in contention within the U.S. administration. One is whether it is worth making a deal at all, or whether the whole strategy should be geared toward isolating, squeezing, and collapsing the regime in North Korea. The other is over sequencing. Everyone agrees that if we are going to get a deal here, the way we are going to get it is a series of coordinated steps. One side performs an act. The other side reciprocates. And we proceed step by step. Everyone agrees that North Korea has to step first, and we have to decide exactly what that step should be and what the United States response to it should be.

The North Koreans are now proposing that they freeze their [nuclear] program and, in return, the United States would remove North Korea from the list of terrorist states and start providing economic assistance. That clearly is not acceptable. The administration has said that North Korea has to dismantle its nuclear program, not just freeze it, before the United States will make a reciprocal move. But we have yet to spell out what we mean by that.

Is that what’s frustrating the Chinese hosts, who apparently want to have something more substantial to negotiate?

Yes. One of the very interesting parts of this whole process is how the Chinese have stepped up their engagement and are going beyond just providing the venue for the talks and actually trying to be the moderator or broker of the deal.

So the likelihood is that we won’t know until the talks resume, probably early next year, whether there is enough give in the positions to make anything possible?

That’s exactly right. As recent news stories have made clear, the U.S. negotiator is held on a very tight leash and given a set of talking points, from which he cannot stray. One of the things that has to change is that the U.S. negotiator actually has to be allowed to negotiate and be given permission to try to work out a deal. We are unlikely to see that until the six-party talks resume, and maybe not even then.

Right now, the head of the U.S. negotiating team is James Kelley, who is an assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Do you think the negotiations should be turned over to someone with a more senior position?

It’s possible that Kelley could play this role, but it would be better if there were a special presidential envoy appointed with the full confidence of President Bush and the authority to negotiate on the president’s behalf. That would send a very important signal to the North Koreans and to our partners in the negotiations that we are serious and we are engaged in a good faith effort to negotiate an end to the North Korean program.

Clearly, the administration knows that if the talks fail, the situation is likely to get worse?

Yes. But that’s the heart of the problem. There are some in the administration who are willing to accept the chaos that most certainly would result from the failure of the negotiations and, in fact, there are even some inside and outside the administration who are advocating a military solution. For example, former CIA Chief James Woolsey has published articles saying that a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities and the 11,000 artillery tubes and rockets the North Koreans have installed outside Seoul could work.

That’s what I mean by the fundamental split in the administration. Even with the difficulties we have encountered in the war in Iraq, there are still some who favor either a military solution to overthrow the regime or continued containment and isolation until the North Korean regime collapses. The trouble is that the military solution could lead to a peninsula-wide war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Waiting for North Korea to collapse has proved to be a losing strategy.

On Iran, some people have said that public opinion in Iran is so split, it was easy for pragmatists to persuade those at the top of the Iranian regime not to go ahead with a nuclear weapons program.

Iran was surprised by the international discovery of its nuclear program. It wasn’t ready to break out of the NPT and go flat out for a nuclear weapons program. It was stunned by the unanimous international reaction to this discovery. Iran was isolated, there wasn’t a country in the world that was standing up and defending Iran’s position. Iran doesn’t see itself as a pariah nation, doesn’t want to be a pariah nation, so for a variety of reasons it seemed to have made the calculation that it is best to back off this program, at least for now, and to see whether a non-nuclear weapons future is more secure and see whether it can address its security needs with increased cooperation with Europe and perhaps with the United States.

What does the Bush administration think about the Iran situation?

The administration seems to be pleasantly surprised by how things have turned out. But it is approaching the whole situation with a deep suspicion of Iranian intentions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could have voted to seek sanctions on Iran from the United Nations Security Council, but the Europeans headed that off?

Yes, although I believe the United States position to seek sanctions was always a negotiating position. And even within the U.S. government, few actually wanted to take this to the Security Council at this point. We can’t afford another major international crisis at this time, given the troubles we are having in Iraq. The United States demand to go to the Security Council was always designed, I believe, to negotiate a stronger IAEA resolution.

Having said that, doesn’t it seem at least inconsistent that there are some in the administration willing to face a possible showdown with North Korea?

The factions who favor forced regime change in both Iran and North Korea are losing influence. That’s clear. Things have not turned out well in Iraq. It was not as easy, or quick, or clean as the regime change advocates had promised. The president, I believe, is forced to turn to the more moderate officials in his administration to try to resolve the situations with Iran and North Korea without the use of force, which is what he says he has always wanted to do. The difference here is that he is actually doing it.

What is so interesting about the Iranian situation is that it is working. If the Iranians do what they say they will do, this is a remarkable victory for the United States and its allies. We will have discovered, exposed, and stopped an Iranian program that from all indications was destined to build the capability to develop a nuclear bomb. It was still years away from that capability, but it was much more sophisticated, much more ambitious than anybody suspected, even a year ago.

In an article you wrote with Jon B. Wolfsthal in Arms Control Today, you discuss what you call “a gap in the regime” of the NPT. Article Four of the treaty allows non-nuclear weapons states to acquire technology that can create the ingredients for both nuclear weapons and peaceful-use reactors that produce electricity. Is it possible to change the treaty?

There is growing international interest in revising the basic deal of the NPT. It is no longer acceptable to allow nations to acquire the technologies that can produce the basic ingredients for nuclear bombs— highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The NPT expressly allows countries to do that because those technologies can produce the fuel for nuclear reactors and reprocess the fuel in nuclear reactors. That’s the problem.

But isn’t it true that what got many countries to sign on to the treaty was the ability to keep peaceful use programs?

Right. At the time the treaty was negotiated, everyone had great hopes for nuclear power. This was going to make electricity so cheap we were not going to have to meter it anymore. And so the treaty was designed to promote nuclear power while restricting nuclear weapons.

What’s the answer?

In order to solve the Iranian problem, we have to solve this basic treaty problem. There are a number of proposals being developed— some by the director of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, some by expert groups in this country, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to change the terms of the deal.

The problem is not the nuclear reactor in a country. The problem is what goes into and what comes out of the reactor [that is, substances that can be processed into weapons-grade material]. So you have to find a way to guarantee countries that want to pursue nuclear power that they will have a cheap and secure supply of nuclear fuel, and [safe] disposal of the materials that come out of the reactor so [the countries] don’t have to build [disposal] facilities [themselves].

There are two major ways of going about this. One, as ElBaradei has proposed, is to internationalize the capabilities for enriching uranium [fuel for reactors] and reprocessing plutonium [that is part of the spent fuel of some reactors], so while these facilities might be located in a country, they would be under international control and management. Another proposal we are looking at is to use market forces to solve this problem. Perhaps we could create an international consortium that could provide a cheap guaranteed supply of uranium for reactors and take the fuel as it came out and reprocess it and store it so there were no facilities in an individual country at all. A model for this is the European [fuel-enrichment] consortium, Urenco, which is owned [jointly by Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain] and therefore is not under the control of any one country.


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